A Brief History of Delegates And Super Delegates

The origins of pledged delegates chosen in caucuses and primaries and “super delegates” are getting much more scrutiny with no resolution in the Clinton versus Obama race. That was the case at the Feb. 21st New Britain Democratic Town Committee meeting. DTC member Butch Wierbicki, a United Auto Workers retiree, asked with a tone of suspicion in his voice where and when did the super delegates come from?

The earlier-than-ever Iowa and New Hampshire face offs and the front-loading of many primaries were supposed to make curiosity about delegates a moot point. Last December conventional wisdom held that New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who had already signed up a good share of the “super delegates”, would be the inevitable nominee before one rank and file Democrat went to vote in a caucus or primary.

Butch Wierbicki is not alone in wondering about super delegates. Many Democrats and observers are asking and wondering about delegate selection because every delegate vote now matters. You’ve heard the numbers. The Democratic nominee will need 2,025 delegate votes out of more than 4,000 for the nomination at the national convention in Denver in August. As of March 1, both Clinton and Obama had amassed over 1,000 delegates each for the stretch run. Obama is holding an advantage after 11 straight primary and caucus victories and the early favorite Clinton is seeking a comeback on March 4th and the April 22nd primary in Pennsylvania.

The delegate make up of the 2008 Democratic National Convention springs from two conflicting trends in the Democratic Party over the last 40 years. One (grassroots) is to empower the rank and file to select the nominee. Delegates pledged to a candidate at the district level are the grassroots. The other (top-down) is to allow party potentates to have an automatic voice to determine the nominees, party platforms and rules. These are the super delegates, officially known as “Party Leaders and Elected Officials (PLEOs)” as stipulated in national party bylaws.

In 1968, a fractious national convention torn up by the Vietnam War made concessions to reformers to review rules for a more open selection process. The result was the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which established a process that gave grassroots people, union members and minorities a greater chance at becoming delegates. The more “democratic” rules took effect in 1972 when former Senator George McGovern (who led the commission) became the nominee.

In 1982, the pendulum had swung the other way. According to www.superdelegates.org: “As the Democratic Party increased their use of primaries and caucuses to select delegates during the 1960s and 1970s, intra-party criticism continued, with the opinion expressed that some control of the nomination process should remain among party elites. Although the McGovern-Fraser reforms insured significant primary delegate representation by the 1972 National Convention, Democratic presidential defeats in 1972 and 1980, and the surprise success of then-outsider candidate Jimmy Carter’s nomination in 1976, increased the call for more control being vested with Party leaders.”

Enter the Hunt Commission (led by then North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt). Hunt’s group established the super delegates representing 15% of the convention — a percentage that has since grown to 20% of all delegates. Former Cong. and 1984 Vice Presidential Nominee Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter, defended super delegates in a February 25th Op-Ed article in the New York Times: “So we created super delegates and gave that designation to every Democratic member of Congress. Today the 796 super delegates also include Democratic governors, former presidents and vice presidents, and members of the Democratic National Committee and former heads of the national committee. These super delegates, we reasoned, are the party’s leaders. They are the ones who can bring together the most liberal members of our party with the most conservative and reach accommodation. They would help write the platform. They would determine if a delegate should be seated. They would help determine the rules. And having done so, they would have no excuse to walk away from the party or its presidential nominee.”

In reality, super delegates are an attempt to put a little bit of the “smoke-filled room” back into the process. They are meant as a counterweight to the reforms adopted following the McGovern-Fraser Commission that paved the way for proportional delegate selection and the opportunity for rank and file Democrats (not party regulars) to become delegates.

Super delegates have every right to lead as Ms. Ferraro suggests, but they also need to heed what primary voters and district delegates want in 2008 if the Democratic nominee is to prevail in November. There can be no turning back the clock to “party bosses” and the smoke filled rooms of yesteryear. Unlike 1972, Democrats will have the best chance of winning the Presidency by upholding the open and democratic reforms that allowed the grassroots to get to conventions nearly 40 years ago.

In Connecticut, separate Clinton and Obama caucuses will be held on March 19th in each Congressional District to pick the delegates pledged to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Reflecting the popular vote of Feb. 5th, Obama will have the edge on pledged district delegates (It’s 3 to 3 in the 5th Congressional District). Additional at-large delegates will be selected by district delegates after the caucuses. There are 11 super delegates from Connecticut, including Senator Dodd and the four Democratic members of Congress. Dodd and U.S. Reps. Murphy, DeLauro and Larson have swung to Obama. The other superdelegates include National Committee members Ellen Camhi, Anthony Avallone, Steve Fontana and John Olsen, State Party Chair Nancy DiNardo and New Haven’s Marty DunLeavy who gains his status by virtue of being a member of the National Democratic Party’s “ethnic coordinating committee.” More information is available at www.ctdems.org

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